Untitled photograph by Christos Stavrou © 2007 All rights reserved
“In the modern way of seeing, reality is first of all appearance – which is always changing. A photograph records appearance. The record of photography is the record of change, of the destruction of the past. Being modern (and if we have the habit of looking at photographs, we are by definition modern), we understand all identities to be constructions. The only irrefutable reality – and our best clue to identity – is how people appear.”
“Photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself.
It is the ineluctably ‘modern’ way of seeing – prejudiced in favor of projects of discovery and innovation.
This way of seeing which now has a long history, shapes what we look for and used to noticing in photographs.”
“The modern way of seeing is to see in fragments. It is felt that reality is essentially unlimited, and knowledge is open-ended. It follows that all boundaries, all unifying ideas have to be misleading, demagogic; at best, provisional; almost always in the long run, untrue. To see reality in the light of certain unifying ideas has the undeniable advantage of giving shape and form to our experience. But it also – so the modern way of seeing instructs us – denies the infinite variety and complexity of the real. Thereby it represses our energy, indeed our right, to remake what we wish to remake – our society, our selves. What is liberating, we are told, is to notice more and more.”
[Excerpts from Susan Sontag‘s essay ‘Photography: A Little Summa’ found in her recently published book At the Same Time (2007), New York, Farrar Straus Giroux]
I selected three photographs of a person, from one of my earlier works, to accompany the above texts but didn’t comment about them yesterday. Today, I imagine the viewer wanting to know more about the context of the shooting. Is it fashion, is it an artistic study, someone might ask; but I think that we need not to bother about that here. Rather, should the viewer explore the context of their own modernist understanding of photography, in Sontag’s terms, the emerging questions and thoughts would be more valuable -which could be shared here after all.
These photographs, an increasing accumulation of details and life of a particular person, (though obviously through quite stylized means and the photographer’s view) refer indeed to appearance as ‘the only irrefutable reality’ and ‘clue to identity’. Our knowledge of the depicted person could be further explored, become more ‘real’, with more photos, angles and appearances and so on. However, my thoughts are that we should consider any open-ended knowledge that we may accept to characterise our ‘modernist’ viewing, as nevertheless structured by normative, current discourses of viewing and understanding, which of course in a dialectic struggle tend to achieve a closure of identity. I believe that after passing through the first layer of external appearance, the modern viewer has been taught to make specific social and moral judgements, as if ‘the clues’ become more substantial proofs.
Such judgements are often insidious and hidden, the more naturalised our social expectations and norms are. For example, I’m wondering if anyone thought after viewing the first photo, whether the person is physically impaired missing her left arm. Another example that I could think here, is whether anyone questioned the gender of the person. These questions were probably never asked because of the deep assumptions, the constructed ‘truths’, in western societies, regarding respectively the disassociation of disability and modelling, or the association of a more passive sexual role with femininity.